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Small Business Culture – Getting it Right

Small Business Culture is No Accident

We’ve all heard about incredible businesses to work at, where people are treated as valued partners and no one wants to go home because work is much meaningful fun. Or something similar. People compete heavily to work at places like Hubspot (#1 on Glassdoor’s 2020 list of top employers) or Trader Joe’s (tops on Forbes’ 2019 list). Companies like Zappos, Warby Parker, and Southwest Airlines are legendary for the efforts they put toward creating and reinforcing their company culture.

When thinking about how your small business culture should evolve over time, keep in mind my axioms when it comes to culture.

  1. Culture doesn’t happen by accident; you have to work at it.
  2. A great culture can only come from great values.
  3. Great companies hire for values above all else.

But is small business culture as easy to develop as in a large business? Arguably, it should be easier. After all, it’s much easier to maneuver a canoe than it is an ocean liner! It’s just that many don’t bother to try. And that’s a shame because I’m not sure it’s even possible to create a great business without a foundation of a great culture.

Firespring – Small Business Culture on Steroids

Picture of Jay Wilkinson - Small Company Culture expert
Jay Wilkinson

One company that I admire for its ability to put these axioms into action and create a great small business culture is Firespring, a marketing firm in that hotbed of entrepreneurial activity, Lincoln, NB. Their CEO, Jay Wilkinson, has done a great job leading this company and instilling a high-performance culture while preserving a playful and interesting environment for creatives to work. Watch Jay’s 2011 TED Talk for tips on what you can do to emulate him.
One of the keys, according to Jay, is “hiring for values”. I can’t stress enough how important this is. Bad cultural fits can ruin a company.

Hiring for Values to Fashion Your Small Business Culture

Figure 1 and 2When doing a second or third interview of a candidate who will report to another… it’s the only thing I ever look at (since I trust my staff to make sure the candidate can do the technical part of the job before presenting them to me). I have this shtick I use where I draw a circle on a piece of paper and tell them that is our corporate culture. Then I draw a circle fully inside that one (Figure 1), and another fully outside (Figure 2), and explain that it’s my job to make sure that they do neither of these things to our culture.

Figure 3That is, neither to fully fit in, nor to be a total outlier. My job is to make sure that they mostly fit in, but bring something new to the organization, and over time the addition of new people allows the culture to evolve naturally. Something like in Figure 3. The reason is simple. Culture is the result of values, and values are what drive decisions in the absence of a specific policy.

Whether you’re an established business or just starting out, having a deliberate culture strategy that values high performance, engagement and excellence is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for superiority of the firm.